Vikings Avoid Contract Dispute With Danielle Hunter

Danielle Hunter and the Vikings came to an agreement yesterday on a restructured contract which would get Hunter to report this year and end, for the time being, what had been an unhappy contract situation. While we do not have the full details on the new deal, based on reports we can piece a few things together and see why this was a pretty easy situation for the Vikings to get themselves out of.

I guess the first thing to understand is how we got here in the first place. If you are a podcast listener I went over this a few weeks ago but the short version is that Hunter took a way below market contract when he signed for $14.4 million a year in 2018. It was clear when he signed that it was a deal he would be unhappy with and by 2020 as the market turned to over $20 million a year for comparable players he was clearly unhappy with his deal. This was reported on last year and the noise became louder this offseason.

Hunter had no real leverage to negotiate a new contract at this stage. He had three years remaining on his current contract and almost no team ever rips up a deal with that many years left to negotiate a new contract. He also missed all of the 2020 season due to injury.

Occasionally when disputes like this come up the standard way to calm the situation is to move money up in the contract, basically borrowing from the anticipated “extension” year and moving it up into the “non-extension” season. This was done a few times with Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh and most recently with Stephon Gilmore in New England. The Vikings stopped a bit short of the same strategy but the concept remains the same.  

According to Nick Shook of NFL.com  the Vikings have $20 million committed to Hunter in 2022, $18 million of which will come as a roster bonus on the fifth day of the league year, which was first reported by Ian Rapoport. That would represent a $7.25 million potential raise in 2022 for Hunter over his current salary of $12 million. If the report is accurate it would seem as if the team converted most of Hunter’s 2022 salary into the roster bonus. The other part of the deal is that the Vikings took $5.6 million of his salary and paid it to him as a signing bonus.

The numbers all sound wonderful and that is what they are designed to do. Basically this was a crisis management episode for Minnesota and they did what they could to placate the situation. In reality nothing materially changes for them at all

Based on the report he did not a receive a raise this year at all. They simply opted to pay him a portion of his salary now (or whenever the bonus is paid) rather than during the year. While the money sounds huge next year and the bonus clearly gives Hunter the ability to test free agency rather than be forced to linger on a roster until the summer since it is a “pay me or cut me” decision date, the fact is Minnesota was almost always going to be in that position.

The Vikings have, historically, done extensions from their veterans with two years left on their contracts. Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, and Adam Thielen all received that treatment. Given that there was almost no way for the Vikings to wait out a decision beyond next year. They had an unhappy player on their hands already and if they refused next year after setting precedent with these others it was going to be a bad situation. So the Vikings were always going to have to make a decision about extending Hunter next year.

If Hunter played poorly this year he would have been cut or asked to take a pay cut. If he played well they were going to extend him. None of that changes because of an $18 million roster bonus.  Their decision matrix remains unchanged meaning they gave up next to nothing to get a player back happy with the organization.

As for the cap charges I also would not be concerned. I look at the $18M bonus as nothing more than a placeholder. My assumption is the Vikings will have the right to convert that to a signing bonus and may have added void years to help. The $5.6M signing bonus is an odd number if you divide it by 3, which is the remaining term of the contract. While some teams still do bonuses like that from time to time more often than not they choose bonus amounts that are neat and clean when prorated. $1.866 is not clean. However $1.4 million over 4 years and $1.12 million over 5 years are. So that is why I would guess that there are void years.

In any event they should be able to split that $18M up as $9M over two years as a worst case scenario which would probably put his cap number around $17.9M ($2M salary, $9M RB Proration, $5M SB1 and 2 proration, $1.87M SB proration). Currently its $17.75M so again no material change unless they don’t have the right to convert the roster bonus which certainly seem shortsighted if that were the case.

The new bonus is so small that it doesn’t add much more onto the cap charge if they cut him and if they don’t really do anything with the money except carry it over to next year that offsets that added cost if they release him next March.

Hunter didn’t really have any options here and the Vikings held most of the cards. I think this was a really good way for the team to handle this kind of situation. The player winds up happy even though the team’s position doesn’t change at all. Really a terrific job by Minnesota, assuming of course all the reported details are indeed correct.

What Teams Might Make Sense to Trade for Julio Jones?

More and more talk is centered around Julio Jones these days and it would seem that the Falcons are intent on trading him, so I thought it might be worth a look at the teams that might be in the market for a wide receiver. Jones carries a $15.3 million salary cap charge for a team in a trade but that number could easily be taken down. With the use of void years, Jones’ cap charge could be as low as $3.92 million so while the salary cap should be an important situation I would not take it as a complete block on a trade.

Here is a look at how teams rosters stand right now based on the performance of their top 3 receivers last season.  The X axis is the total routes run by those top 3 players in 2020 and the Y axis is the average PFF receiving grade of those top 3 receivers. The top 3 were determined by routes run and would not include any draft picks from this year. The bubble size represents the cap space the teams have remaining.

The teams with the biggest needs should come in the lower quadrants where they have sub performing receivers. From looking at the chart I would say that the most logical fits would be the Colts, Broncos, and 49ers with outside candidates of the Chargers and Football Team.

However, I think it is fair to say that any team trading for Jones should take a different look at things. The right way for them to look at this is to measure what impact Jones, assuming he is healthy, might have their group if he replaces the 3rd guy on the unit. Since it is a “win now” kind of move we also should not just be looking at 2021 cap room but also 2022 cap room since basically a team can take the $15.3 million across two years and trade or cut Jones if they wanted to in 2022.

If we assume 520 routes for Jones this year this is how the teams would move. The size of the bubble now represents the cap space a team would have in 2022 after paying Jones $15.3 million and deferring the cost over two years. The bubbles with a silverish color represent teams that would be over the cap in 2022.

Almost every team in the NFL moves into the dominant WR corps. quadrant by trading for Jones and adding him to the mix. This table provides the increase in snaps and average grade that each team will see by adding Jones to the mix. The column that I think is the most interesting is the dollars spent to get that average increase.

TeamTop 3 SnapsTop 3 GradeSnaps GainedGrade IncreaseSnap Increase% Grade Increase% Snap Increase2022 Cap Space$/Grade Increase
Seahawks1,77881.629710.3729714.6%20.1%$39,929,203$1,475,884
Lions1,10671.340110.2340116.7%56.9%$22,946,217$1,495,114
Bengals1,52779.837710.1337714.5%32.8%$61,393,713$1,509,868
Broncos1,46875.11949.8319415.1%15.3%$62,290,154$1,555,932
Vikings1,54487.83008.2030010.3%24.1%$13,226,028$1,865,854
Ravens1,30772.42608.0726012.5%24.8%$30,835,613$1,896,694
Washington1,55879.51287.9312811.1%9.0%$55,448,008$1,928,571
Colts1,42375.11537.4315311.0%12.1%$72,626,534$2,058,296
Bears1,65080.2517.20529.9%3.2%$29,679,005$2,125,000
Titans1,41880.43427.203429.8%31.8%$12,750,283$2,125,000
Eagles1,38171.52166.9021610.7%18.6%$8,556,532$2,217,391
Cardinals1,66078.586.40108.9%0.6%$10,749,491$2,390,625
49ers1,18476.23416.333419.1%40.5%$5,660,393$2,415,789
Buccaneers1,51580.32106.232108.4%16.1%$7,924,717$2,454,545
Panthers1,60680.02185.802187.8%15.7%$52,902,772$2,637,931
Rams1,61977.93665.603667.7%29.2%($18,728,109)$2,732,143
Packers1,44978.62615.532617.6%22.0%($42,364,873)$2,765,060
Chiefs1,60076.71795.071797.1%12.6%$2,585,870$3,019,737
Saints1,12676.33755.033757.1%49.9%($20,331,038)$3,039,735
Raiders1,23771.82334.772337.1%23.2%$32,471,630$3,209,790
Dolphins1,35982.32854.632856.0%26.5%$60,012,383$3,302,158
Jaguars1,61777.11324.371326.0%8.9%$65,581,663$3,503,817
Chargers1,62173.7354.20356.0%2.2%$55,702,132$3,642,857
Texans1,38677.92524.172525.7%22.2%($11,887,574)$3,672,000
Cowboys1,76876.544.1065.7%0.3%($26,182,491)$3,731,707
Browns1,21380.93423.733424.8%39.3%$16,100,903$4,098,214
Steelers1,68673.9832.93834.1%5.2%$63,101,540$5,215,909
Giants1,43977.23831.703832.3%36.3%($8,128,068)$9,000,000
Patriots1,40777.21951.601952.1%16.1%$24,968,124$9,562,500
Falcons1,37581.100.0000.0%0.0%$3,778,215
Bills1,59480.459-0.4759-0.6%3.8%($3,037,723)
Jets1,48674.9139-0.77139-1.0%10.3%$83,761,423

When looking at it this way I think I would change the mix. Seattle absolutely should be in on Jones this year. Though they do not have the cap room this year they clearly have the two year room needed to do this. Seattle is a win now team and it would close any receiver questions they have to add a player like Jones. If it means not extending Jamal Adams so be it as they should be looking to win a title. The only question here is would the Seahawks move away from their love of the run if they added Jones?

The Broncos should remain a team to look at though they are expecting injury reinforcements that may make this artificially high. The Ravens would move way up by making a trade here. Now they have to worry about a Lamar Jackson extension but they already have $23 million on the cap for him in 2022 so an extension will lower that number.

I think based on this you could move the Bears and Titans into the mix too to go along with Washington and the Colts that I mentioned above. The Bears might have a really difficult time fitting him this year but if you are going for broke you can make a case at least for them. The Vikings would have a super unit but I don’t think they are going anywhere at this stage with Kirk Cousins and might not use him enough to justify it. They would have to philosophically make a major change though it would be an interesting mix if they did.

The teams not expected to win now such as the Lions should not be considered since this is a short term rather than long term boost. Those with little cap room also should be out. The Packers, Cowboys, Saints, Rams, Texans, Giants, and Bills have no business being involved. Likewise you should question the Chiefs, Bucs, or Eagles from being involved. The 49ers are the only limited cap team that might still consider it only because they have a high priced QB who wont be on the roster in 2022.

It is worth noting that a few of the teams here did not move as much as I thought. Looking closer it is because of some quirks in snap counts and I was too lazy to clean it up. The Jets for example have Keelan Cole as their top route runner but if they made a trade for Jones (they shouldn’t) Cole would be the guy bumped not Corey Davis. Of the teams impacted by this only the Chargers (Guyton remains rather than Mike Williams) would probably move and make sense as a destination.

You can argue with how you want to value a player. In this case a grade was easy to use but we could use OTC values, yards per game, increase in catch rate, productive yards and so on but identifying the cost per some impact metric is important in helping with a trade or signing decision. And in cases like this sometimes looking just at 2021 cap room might not be the best way to look at a move for a high impact type of player.

Players Beginning to Opt Out of Workouts

In something has probably been some time coming NFL players are beginning to collectively opt out of their offseason workout programs. Thus far today the Broncos and Seahawks have said they will not attend the offseason programs and I would expect many more to follow suit.

The concept of the workout program has always been something that was very hit or miss with veteran players. It is often a trivial amount of money relative to the NFL contract for attendance in an offseason program. To encourage participation teams devised the contract mechanism called a workout bonus in which a player was paid a reasonable sum of money for attending most of the offseason program.

Through the years, however, teams started to seemingly get good participation regardless of offseason money and they used them less and less in their contracts. Those who did keep them never really adjusted with the times as salaries increased workout bonuses stayed pretty much the same- anywhere from $100,000 to $500,000 for the biggest players and $25,000 to $75,000 for the others.

The question is what will the NFL’s reaction be to this. My guess would be that they will up the amount of money that is tied to workouts similar to what was done in the past. While I don’t think teams see the value in the workout program the way they used to they clearly like having the players around the facility during the offseason. Workouts are also beneficial to the non veteran who is more of a fringe player. He can often use more time with the staff and getting prep work for the season. Those players are the ones who have probably been hurt the most by reductions in non gameday related activities over the years.

Overall we have a record of 212 players with a workout bonus with the largest being $750,000 (Za’Darius Smith). 16 players have a bonus of at least $500,000 and 102 between $100,000 and $500,000. The remainder have under $100,000 tied to workouts. If you do not have a contracted bonus for workouts you will earn $275 for each day you attend.

It is also important to know that sometimes workout participation is tied to other salary in your contract. Teams such as the Cowboys, Texans, and Football Team often have what are called workout de-escalators that reduce a players in season salary if they fail to attend the workout program. Usually these range from $250,000 to $500,000 per player and apply to every veteran with a major contract. These teams often have no workout bonuses but the salary tied to the workout is actually among the highest in the NFL. Sometimes teams will also have fine print language tying a portion of a bonus to offseason participation.

Of actual workout bonuses we have records of 25 teams that utilize them this year. Here is the list.

TeamPlayersTotalAvg./Player
Packers19$5,065,000$266,579
Jaguars24$3,725,000$155,208
Bills28$3,172,500$113,304
Chiefs25$3,053,000$122,120
Panthers7$1,925,000$275,000
Bengals8$1,900,000$237,500
Raiders9$1,830,000$203,333
Bears11$1,225,000$111,364
49ers6$1,050,000$175,000
Patriots10$1,040,000$104,000
Vikings11$981,250$89,205
Broncos4$750,000$187,500
Browns6$600,000$100,000
Dolphins13$550,000$42,308
Rams1$500,000$500,000
Giants8$480,000$60,000
Saints4$400,000$100,000
Eagles6$360,000$60,000
Lions3$280,000$93,333
Cowboys1$180,000$180,000
Texans4$115,000$28,750
Seahawks1$100,000$100,000
Cardinals1$50,000$50,000
Football Team1$50,000$50,000
Chargers1$25,000$25,000

How Teams Are Using The Signing Bonus to Manage the Salary Cap

This year brought about a lot more use of signing bonuses than usual, but this has been a method of managing the salary cap that teams have used for years. To try to put the numbers a little more into context I wanted to look at how leveraged teams are with the use of the signing bonus. To do that I looked at how much salary teams have on the books from 2022 to 2026 that is not prorated and compared it to the amount that is prorated. The reason for the 2026 timeframe is because that is the final year that any prorated money is currently on the books for.

The Biggest Abusers

Eagles- 40.7%

The Eagles are well known for their use of bonus restructures to deal with the salary cap and deferring millions of dollars to the future. They rank 2nd in the NFL with $151M in future charges related to signing bonus prorations which is incredibly high when you consider they don’t have a QB on a veteran multi year contract. With just $221M in other salary to account for the Eagles are pretty much going to be in a pinch whenever they need to cut a player or a void hits the books. The Eagles have around $60M in prorated void money over the next five years by far the most in the NFL.

Steelers- 37.5%

I would feel confident in saying that the Steelers pledge more signing bonus money at signing than any team in the NFL, but they have also heavily relied on restructures. They had been able to keep things somewhat in check, though, by avoiding the use of voidable contract years on their restructures until 2021. The Steelers were hit hard by the decline in the cap to the point where they needed to use void years for even low level signings. The team has about $97 million remaining in non prorated salary and $57 million in prorated salary that is sunk. $20 million of that number comes due next year if the first set of voids kicks in, the highest void total in the NFL.

Falcons- 37.1%

The Falcons have made a mess of their salary cap the last few years in an effort to keep signing players but they have still more or less avoided the use of void years (their recent restructure of Dante Fowler’s contract is a void year without calling it that) which is a positive. They have gone heavy into their stars which makes trading their players or cutting them difficult. In a sense they remind me a little of the Lions in the “big 3” era where the team hurt themselves by going to the well too many times on just a handful of players.

Saints- 35.5%

The Saints attempts to skirt the salary cap for the last five years is well documented. They have used almost every trick available to push salary out, second only to the Eagles in the use of restructures and void years. Their ratio is technically a little better than this because technically Drew Brees is still on the roster in 2022 due to a void and he will be released prior to that but that is just shuffling the money from potential dead money to actual dead money once they process his retirement on June 2.

Seahawks- 31.9%(Does not include Lockett extension)

I didn’t expect to see Seattle here but they used a massive signing bonus with Russell Wilson and really played their cap haphazardly the last two years on a relatively lower cost team. They had to go in and do a few conversions this year and used void years in almost every signing. They are shorter term voids compared to other teams but that still pushed them over the top.

The other teams that are over 30% are the Buccaneers (a complete departure that all happened this offseason), Panthers, Cardinals, and Packers.

The Non-Users

Colts- 4.3%

Indianapolis has taken over the Buccaneers historical position of being allergic to the use of the bonus for cap relief. The 4.3% is basically all due to rookie contracts where teams do not have much of a choice because of the expectation of paying rookies a big chunk of change in their first year in the NFL. Their $10.5 million of prorated bonus money is about $15 million less than the next closest team giving the team great flexibility for the future to handle roster turnover that occurs in the NFL.

Jets- 12.1%

The Jets have done a complete 180 in regards to contracts over the last two years going from a bonus heavy team that has dealt with awful cap consequences to one that is hardly using them. The Jets signed two big ticket players this year and barely used a signing bonus in doing the deals. With a rookie QB about to come in and no major extensions in sight the Jets should be able to hammer home this concept if this is their new strategy they want to go with as a way to manage the salary cap.

Dolphins- 15.7%

Miami went through some bad salary cap times not that long ago and have adjusted accordingly by moving away from the messes that were the Ndamukong Suh and Ryan Tannehill style deals and instead doing a more focused approach to the contracts. They are not as low as the Jets but have been cautious with the signing bonus on their recent signings using numbers of $10.5 million for Byron Jones and $7 million for Xavien Howard. I would lean toward Miami having one of the more balanced approaches to maximizing salary cap space in the present without abusing the future.

Chiefs- 16.0%

The number for Kansas City is a bit misleading. Their $86 million in prorated money ranks 14th in the NFL but their ability to avoid ridiculous sums of bonuses on Patrick Mahomes drives their percentage way down since his contract is so large. I would not expect this to change much in the future unless the Chiefs have to restructure Mahomes in 2023 and 2024. That contract really gives the Chiefs so much leeway with the cap. It’s really the most team friendly contract in the NFL all things considered.

Titans- 16.4%

Tennessee has always done a fair job of managing their contracts and finding a good balance between bonuses and non-bonuses. They have a few big money deals on the books now and are continuing that approach which can be difficult to do. I would be interested in seeing what happens to Tennessee if they have another year where they are a 2nd round type playoff exit and if that leads them to move in a different direction ala the Bucs in an attempt to really just go for it with this group of players.

Here are the numbers for all the teams in the league.

TeamYearly SalarySunk Salary% Sunk
Eagles$221,695,054$151,066,98640.5%
Steelers$96,194,531$57,703,62037.5%
Falcons$175,727,906$103,653,76837.1%
Saints$263,020,952$144,796,13535.5%
Seahawks$137,070,805$64,109,10531.9%
Buccaneers$214,601,283$96,014,07430.9%
Panthers$157,371,584$68,537,22630.3%
Cardinals$204,418,281$88,783,80330.3%
Packers$275,063,199$119,166,84430.2%
Ravens$230,061,184$94,915,12029.2%
Browns$252,470,918$104,038,46529.2%
Bears$244,098,101$100,563,49029.2%
Giants$233,124,304$86,894,75027.2%
Cowboys$457,861,192$155,276,02125.3%
Football Team$193,598,864$65,488,05725.3%
Vikings$245,483,047$81,369,17224.9%
Patriots$243,468,949$79,117,32224.5%
Lions$269,116,797$85,917,93124.2%
Bengals$199,704,576$62,819,99023.9%
49ers$329,296,653$100,809,32023.4%
Broncos$230,815,181$65,149,78722.0%
Jaguars$228,001,295$63,629,45121.8%
Raiders$126,098,324$35,117,74521.8%
Bills$244,391,604$67,897,18721.7%
Rams$372,769,720$93,692,08320.1%
Chargers$283,907,330$68,942,76119.5%
Texans$314,213,980$68,833,81318.0%
Titans$281,692,763$55,239,60616.4%
Chiefs$450,802,814$86,159,95416.0%
Dolphins$239,477,089$44,682,15315.7%
Jets$187,604,801$25,733,91312.1%
Colts$237,476,216$10,553,9944.3%
NFL Avg.$245,021,853$81,146,05125.0%

A Look at Franchise Tags from 2011-2020

As the NFL heads into the offseason, a key date on the league calendar is February 23rd and March 9th, the window in which teams can utilize either the franchise or transition tag. As we get closer to the date, I wanted to take a look at the historic usage of tags between 2011-2020:

  • Teams have used the franchise or transition tag 99 times
  • 55 of the 99 (55%) players tagged did NOT reach a long-term extension with their incumbent team, prior to the deadline to sign tagged players to extensions
  • Le’Veon Bell, Kirk Cousins, and Dak Prescott are the only 3 of the 99 players tagged who have received the “exclusive” designation
  • Teams that have applied the tag the most are the Chiefs (7), Cowboys (6), and Steelers/Dolphins/Broncos/WFT (5)
  • Teams that have applied the tag the fewest are the Packers (0), Texans/Seahawks (1), and Eagles/Lions/Raiders/Titans/Falcons/49ers/Saints/Vikings/Bills/Buccaners (2)
  • Positional groups seeing the most tags are Linebackers (18), Defensive Ends (15) and Kickers (10)
  • Positional groups seeing the fewest tags are Cornerbacks (5), Tight Ends (5), and Punters (2)

The graph below illustrates the usage of tags by year, with last year seeing the most tags since 2012.

If the salary cap is set to the widely reported figure of $180.5M, the franchise tag numbers for 2021 would be as projected below. 

The table below compares the 2021 projected franchise tag numbers with last year’s tag numbers.           

Position2021 Projected2020% Change
QB$24.828M$26.824M-7.44%
WR$15.808M$17.865M-11.50%
DE$14.530M$17.788M-18.31%
CB$14.895M$16.338M-8.83%
DT$13.736M$16.126M-14.82%
LB$14.630M$15.828M-7.57%
OL$13.602M$14.781M-7.98%
S$10.496M$11.441M-8.26%
TE$8.496M$10.607M-19.90%
RB$8.074M$10.278M-21.44%
K/P$4.433M$5.019M-11.67%

 A silver lining that teams may recognize from the expected salary cap decline is the discounted rate of franchise tags this season. For example, working off the 2021 projected tag numbers, it would only cost the Packers around $8M to tag Aaron Jones. While the Packers are currently $19M over the cap, if they can manage to create enough capspace through restructures and cuts to take on a $8M cap charge for Jones, it would be excellent value. Jones has the production to earn a deal valued in the top 5 of the RB market and the salary for that point in the market starts at $12.5M. With the 2021 tag numbers dropping at least 7%, year over year, across the board, it would not be shocking to see more teams using the tag, than typically in years past.

Navigating the Saints 2021 Salary Cap Situation

Though the Saints are looking like the top dog in the NFC, more and more people are starting to take notice of their salary cap situation next year. Jason LaCanfora of CBS wrote an article just last week on it where he asked some other team cap managers how to handle it and they all agreed it’s a pretty big mess. Assuming the cap drops to around $175 million we project the Saints to be in the ballpark of $95 million over the salary cap (this may get reported higher due to a unique contract situation that only occurred because of the CBA but we are factoring in the intent of that contract into our cap number), which I believe has to be the worst salary cap position a team has ever been in, though in the Saints defense nobody every anticipated a pandemic potentially wiping out the salary cap for a year.

So I’ll have some fun and take a shot at running through the Saints roster and some moves that I think they will consider.  At the end of each player move I’ll keep a running tally of where we are with the cap.

Restructure Drew Brees’ Contract Depending on Decision to Retire or Play

A lot of what the Saints will likely do with their roster hinges on the decision of Brees. Brees currently counts for $36.15 million on the Saints salary cap which clearly can’t happen if they want to comply with the cap. If he retires the team will pick up $13.5 million in cap space while carrying $22.65 million in dead money, but I think the Saints can get creative here to work with this contract.

If Brees is 100% certain he is going to retire the Saints can reduce his salary to the league minimum of $1.075 million. That would allow the Saints to drop his salary cap number from $36.15 million to $12.2225 million a savings of $23.925 million. The team would have to carry Brees as an active player until June 2nd at which point they would officially place him on the retired list and receive the June 1 cap benefit. Rather than taking on $22.65 million in dead money in 2021 the team would only have an $11.15 million charge for Brees in 2021 and $11.5 million in 2022.

What if Brees is not sure he wants to retire and acts a bit like Brett Favre at the end of his career? One option is to add more void years to the contract, reduce his salary as above, and convert the $23.925 million to an option bonus that is due after the first game of the season. Under that type of contract Brees would count for $17.01 million, a savings of $19.14 million. If Brees does decide to retire the team would get the same savings as in the first scenario since the option would never be exercised. If he plays then you have a lot more dead money to deal with in 2022 but that is the price of Brees returning.

If Brees is 100% certain that he will return again you have a few options. The basic one would mimic the $19.14 million in savings I just mentioned using a basic conversion. The second one would see him actually extend his contract into 2022 (2022 is currently a void year) with a guaranteed roster bonus due on the first day of the league year. They should be able to make this not subject to any forfeiture such that he can earn it and then retire, ala Andrew Luck. Doing this allows them to bring that cap number down to the $12.2225 million number and get the best of all worlds. Brees would have to also be willing to modify his contract like this. You could also do a similar contract in the Favre scenario if he is agreeable.

After thinking about it for a bit I think no matter what the Saints probably need to turn 2022 into a real contract year under any scenario in which Brees may play in 2021. Doing this  gives them the capability to do the same trick with the contract I said for 2021 and use the June 1 in 2022 if Brees plays in 2021 and wants to retire in 2022. Since Brees seems happy to play for $25M every year a token $25M base salary should be fair.

In any event I’m confident I can come up with a way to get that $23.925 million in savings here with Brees, so about $70 million to go.

Cut Kwon Alexander

No matter what happens this year the Saints have to look at this Alexander trade as a one year shot and not get fooled into trying to keep an often injured linebacker long term. There is $0 associated with releasing Alexander so that will save the team $13.4 million. We are now $56.7 million away from being cap compliant.

Restructure Cameron Jordan

The Saints just extended Jordan last season so I have to imagine he is in their plans with or without Brees. Jordan has an $18.9 million salary cap charge next year and $13.8 million in salary. He currently has one void year on his contract and they can tack on one additional one to maximize the cap savings. This move would increase the rest of his contract by $2.565 million a season but save $10.26 million on the 2021 cap. The downside with this move is you are likely locking into Jordan for at least the 2022 season when he will be 33. With this restructure we have $46.4 million left to go. (Note- Thanks to one of our readers pointing it out I had a big error here that moved this number by about $13 million from the original article so the totals are now reflected for that. Sorry for the confusion)

Cut Nick Easton

Easton’s $7 million cap figure is way too high for a player who is going to be a backup barring injury to someone else. They could try to bring his number down for the season but with just $1 million in dead money it probably makes sense to cut and then revisit later on if necessary. This saves $6 million in cap space putting us $40.4 million away from our goal.

Cut Janoris Jenkins

Jenkins is having a decent year but there is no way to justify an $11.2 million salary and a $14.2 million salary cap charge next year. Jenkins does have $1.2 million in guaranteed salary next year with no offsets but I think you just eat that charge. Cutting Jenkins frees up $7 million in cap space, though it also leaves them with an ugly $7.2 million dead money charge. We are $33.4 million away from making it to cap compliancy.

Restructure Marshon Lattimore

Lattimore is going to be a tricky contract negotiation. He is entering the final year of his contract and will count $10.244 million on the salary cap. He has probably gotten worse every year in coverage but I can’t see gutting the entire secondary in 2021 especially if Brees returns. If you enter extension negotiations with Lattimore he is going to be expensive. He is a first round pick and recent contracts for Jalen Ramsey, Tre’Davious White, and Marlon Humphrey have averaged between $17.25 million and $20 million a year. Most likely he is going to look for something close to the $20 million spectrum. I’m not sure if he is really worth that number or not to New Orleans. They could trade him but there is no cap relief associated with that during the lead in to free agency so keep that in mind if that is an option.

In any event there should not be anything that prevents me from adding four void years to Lattimore’s contract for cap purposes and deferring his salary charges to 2021. I can lower Lattimore’s cap charge to $2.84 million by doing this. If the team does wind up extending Lattimore after the season they will keep the $1.85M in proration from 22 to 25 as is, a pretty low cost overall. If they don’t extend him then you are baking $7.4 million dead into 2022, but 2021 is our primary concern not 2022 at this point. With $7.4 million in savings for 2021 we are now $26 million over the salary cap.

Extend Ryan Ramczyk

All of the above for Lattimore may also apply to Ramczyk, who will count for $11.064 million on the Saints 2021 salary cap as he moves into his final contract year. The only reason I put the extend label on him is because I think this is an easier contract to handle. Jack Conklin is the highest paid true right tackle in the NFL at $14 million a year so I think getting to $15 million a season can probably get this one done. On top of that its less money pay outs on these deals- Conklin made $20 million in new money in the first new year of his contract while the cornerbacks are well into the $30 million range. Now you can argue the benefit of a right tackle versus a corner without Brees but many teams will, I believe, opt for the security of the offensive line in front of a young QB down the line.  

I think you can do a deal here that would give Ramczyk an $8 million raise in 2021 while bringing his cap number down to $4.6 million by paying him a $1 million salary and an $18 million signing bonus. That probably means a $17.6 million cap charge the next year but that should be workable especially since they can restructure if needed. We have saved $6.46 million with the extension bringing us to about $19.6 million over the salary cap.

Cut Malcom Brown

Brown is a solid player on the Saints defensive line but I think that you can almost always find solid nose tackles that would probably be cheaper than the $6.5 million cap charge he will have next year, especially if the pandemic leads to a number of veterans being available for pennies on the dollar. If the team cuts him they will save $5 million in cap room which is significant given their cap situation. This puts us$14.5 million over the salary cap.

Cut Latavius Murray

I know the Saints like having Murray to spell Alvin Kamara but once you do that big deal with Kamara you really can’t afford to waste another $4.2 million on a backup. The backup needs to be cheaper at this point. If you cut Murray you will save $2.5 million on the cap. You would have to replace him with either a minimum salary vet (cap charge around $1M) or lower drafted rookie (cap charge around $800K). Maybe the Saints will think the net savings are not worth it , but I would think that they are. We are now $12 million away.

Cut Thomas Morstead

Morstead has been around forever and those players are hard to part ways with, but his $4.5 million cap charge is the second highest in the NFL and about $2.5 million more than the league average spent on the position. I just don’t see how you justify that, especially in today’s game. The Saints rank 22nd in number of punts through 8 games so around the NFL average or just below. They save $2.5 million by releasing Morstead getting us to $9.5 million.

Restructure Michael Thomas

I saved this one for last because while I think it will be necessary if the cap hits the lowest of lows to sign rookies and/or a QB if Brees retires I was a little hesitant because of the issues the team seems to have had with Thomas this year. Right now trading Thomas would cost the Saints $1.2 million in cap room so I don’t see that as likely even if Brees retires. However, restructuring this contract probably makes him untradeable in 2022 as well which most likely will be the last year he would have any significant trade value. By adding a void year I can drop his cap charge from $18.8 million in 2021 to $9.5 million, which blocks our trades in 2022 unless we want to take on over $25 million in dead money. So they need to make sure they are 100% on board with Thomas if they want to go here. This brings us to pretty much where we need to be to at least comply with the cap.

Other possible moves

I avoided a few other moves for a few reasons but we can walk through them here. I did not cut Emmanuel Sanders despite a $10 million cap hit. This was strictly related to my thinking Brees comes back and I think would want that third receiver. I don’t see a point in adding even more dead money to his 2022 void year because unlike Lattimore I don’t see any chance that they retain him in 2022 so I would rather bite the bullet all in 2021. If Brees does not return he is a no brainer cut regardless of a $2 million salary guarantee. Cutting him saves $4 million….I did not touch the contract of Terron Armstead. 2021 is his last year under contract and there is already $5 million in dead money for him coming in 2022. Armstead is a terrific player when healthy but has played in 7, 10, 10, and 15 games the last four years. He’ll be expensive to extend if he stays healthy but I would rather wait to see how things shake out over the next year. If they did push money on him, which would be reasonable if they see a better than 70% chance they extend him in 22, you would save $8.12 million if you add void years. If you fail to extend him, though, you have gone from $5.075 million in dead money in 2022 to $13.2 million, which is a ton of leverage for a player to have. It probably makes more sense to just extend him outright in this scenario….No chance I’m touching the Andrus Peat contract. Peat has an $11.6 million cap charge and they could open up around $6 million there, but he has the most downside of the players on that line and they should keep open the possibility of cutting him in 2022…I also didn’t touch Taysom Hill’s contract because there is no point to it and I don’t see them cutting him so no need to mention it. So if the Saints went absolutely crazy all in for 2021 and did all these things then you are looking at being around $18 million under the cap.

Final Outcome

So based on the numbers above would likely need to cut Jenkins, Alexander, Brown, Easton, Murray, and Morstead. We would be a few minor moves away from having enough space to sign rookies and a few low cost free agents. We could get lower if we really need to go all in to get to $20 million or so under which gives us more wiggle room to really look at the pros and cons of bringing back Jared Cook, Alex Anzalone, and Sheldon Rankins. If Brees does retire the team will certainly need a QB unless they really go crazy with Hill. I think they can come to a low cost agreement with Jameis Winston and if they keep him on the sidelines most of this year they can get pretty creative to give him a reasonable way to earn some money without having it count on the cap in 21. Winston flopped in free agency last year and while there will be more openings in 2022 I think they offer the best opportunity for both sides.

Remember these numbers are all worst case scenarios. If the revenues are not impacted as much as we think and they are offset by other union concessions this year you may be able to add millions and millions of dollars to these figures putting them well under the salary cap for next season.  2022 would remain challenging for the Saints even if Brees retires but each year should get easier for them as they transition to the post Brees era, though it is going to be some time before they trend toward the NFL averages for salary cap health.

Looking at Recent Positional Market Growth in the NFL

Despite CoVid-19 posing ramifications to next year’s salary cap, several positional groups have experienced strong growth over the last few months. In April, Laremy Tunsil signed a 3-year, $66M extension, eclipsing the highest paid OT, Lane Johnson, by 22%. In early July, Patrick Mahomes signed a 10-year extension worth over $450M. The deal established Mahomes as the highest paid NFL player in NFL history, a title previously held by Russell Wilson. A week later, the Chiefs extended franchise designated player, Chris Jones to a 4 year, $80M deal making him the 3rd highest paid interior defensive lineman, behind Aaron Donald and DeForest Buckner. Thereafter, Myles Garett became the highest paid Non-QB for 13 days, after which the Chargers announced an extension with Joey Bosa averaging $27M/year. In addition, in the last week, the Tight End market has skyrocketed, highlighted by George Kittle’s 5-year, $75M extension. With all the recent market growth, I thought it would be important to look at positional groups experiencing the strongest growth over the last year.  

Tight End

Over the last year, no positional group in the NFL has seen stronger growth than the Tight End market. Prior to last week, the Tight End market had been stagnant for years. From 2015-2019, the top 5 of the Tight End market had grown merely 6.91%, the lowest growth rate of all positional groups in that timespan (excluding STs). The gold standard in the TE market was set by Jimmy Graham when he signed a 4-year extension with the Saints in 2015, valued at $10M Avg./Year and 7.5% of the cap. While Graham signed another deal in 2018 with an Avg./Year of $10M, the deal was valued at 5.6% of the cap due to cap growth. During 2020 free agency, the title of highest paid Tight End on a multi-year deal was finally passed onto Austin Hooper after he signed a 4-year contract with the Browns averaging $10.5M/Year. From a dollar perspective, Hooper’s deal was seen as a market reset. However, his deal was valued at 5.3% of the cap, which still fell under Graham’s 7.5% cap figure. Last week, the TE market finally experienced a true reset after George Kittle signed an extension worth $15M/Year, valued at 7.6% of the cap. This marked a 42.85% growth from Hooper’s deal and also eclipsed the gold standard in the TE market, set by Jimmy Graham’s 2015 deal with the Saints.

Offensive Lineman

The top of the OL market has grown 17.71% since last year, thanks to the 3- year, $66M extension that Laremy Tunsil signed with the Texans in April.  The deal marked a 33.3% increase in the LT market and a 22% increase from the benchmarks Lane Johnson had set last year after signing an extension averaging $18M/year. In addition to resetting OL benchmarks by 22%, Tunsil’s extension length of 3 years is extremely favorable as he gets another opportunity to hit the open market after the 2023 season. Per the table below, Anthony Castonzo is the only other player with a shorter deal than Laremy Tunsil, when looking at the top of the market. However, Castonzo is also 32 years old, so a shorter-term deal at that age is expected.

Edge Rusher

The Edge Rusher market has exploded since 2015, with a growth rate of 60.79%. In 2015, Justin Houston set the benchmark at the position, with an Avg./Year of $16.833M. A year later, Von Miller signed an extension in 2016 worth $19.083M Avg./Year. Miller’s deal was then eclipsed in 2018 by Khalil Mack. Mack’s deal was the benchmark at the position until last month, after the Browns extended their former 2017 first overall pick to a 5 year, $125M extension with $100M in total guarantees. This marked a 6% growth at the top of the edge rush market. However, Garrett held the new title merely for two weeks, after the Chargers announced a 5-year, $135M extension with Joey Bosa. Bosa’s extension not only makes him the highest paid Non-QB in the NFL, but his deal is also the 2nd highest ever for pass rushers, in terms of cap adjusted inflation. Michael Strahan’s contract in 1999, which was valued at 17% of the cap, would equate to $33,789,858/Year while Bosa’s $27M extension is 13.62% of the cap. One of the most impressive parts of Bosa’s deal is that shortly after Garrett reset the market by 6%, Bosa was able to build off Garrett’s deal by 8%. Players like TJ Watt and Yannick Ngakoue will certainly reap the benefits of the strong deals and market growth from Garrett’s and Bosa’s deal.

Quarterback

In 2013, Aaron Rodgers was the highest paid QB, after he signed an extension worth $22M/year. Rodgers held the title from 2013-2016. However, since 2016, the top of the QB market has been a game of musical chairs, with a new highest paid QB every year. At the end of 2016, it was Andrew Luck who had an average of $24.594/Year. Luck leapfrogged Brees and Flacco, who had also signed extensions earlier that year valued at $24.250M and $22.133M, respectively. In 2017, Derek Carr became the first $25M+ player in NFL history. Two months later, the title for highest paid QB went to Matt Stafford after signing a deal worth $27M/year. In 2018 alone, a whopping 4 QBs held the title of highest paid QB which started with Jimmy Garroppolo and went through Kirk Cousins, Matt Ryan, and ended with Aaron Rodgers after he signed a deal worth $33.5M/year. In April 2019, Russell Wilson became the highest paid QB at $35M. Then last month, Patrick Mahomes eclipsed Wilson’s annual salary by 28.57%, the greatest salary jump at the top of the QB market since at least 2015. This will likely keep Mahomes $45M Avg./Year as the benchmark for at least the next year. While Deshaun Watson is eligible for a new deal, it would be difficult for him to eclipse Mahomes’ deal given he signed his extension off a Super Bowl victory and MVP. However, I would still expect Watson to contribute to the growth of the QB market and his deal should come in around $40M Avg./Year.

Other Markets

The one position that continues to remain stagnant is the cornerback market. Since 2015, the top of the 5 of the cornerback market has only grown 12.91%. The next lowest is interior DL at 24.05%. While Darius Slay became the new highest paid CB earlier this year at $16.683M Avg./Year, the gold standard in the CB market is the Patrick Peterson deal from 2014, when he signed an extension worth $14.01M and 10.53% of the cap. The next recent CB to come close to Peterson’s 10.53% of cap was Josh Norman’s 2016 free agent deal with Washington, when he signed at 9.7% of the cap. Candidates who I’d expect to significantly move the needle in the CB market include Jalen Ramsey, Tre’Davious White, Marlon Humphrey, and Marshon Lattimore. Assuming at least one player signs this season between 9.7%-10.53% of the cap, the new benchmark in the CB market should be between $19.225M-$20.870M. With the amount of draft capital the Rams traded away for Jalen Ramsey last season, he carries the most leverage and very likely will sign at $20M+/year.